Big fashion names like H&M and GAP, among others, have been increasingly popular for their “fast” fashion; trendy fashion available at low prices. In fact, women’s clothing prices have fallen 35 percent in the last 10 years.
How do these businesses make a profit? The answer lies in volume, which in turn means mass production done cost effectively and at a frenetic pace. To achieve that, companies look to overseas labor. That option, however, raises its own issues, including the problem of child labor. According to a report by the International Labour Organization, 73 million children are engaged in child labor worldwide, with 44.6 million of them in Asia. That disturbing number has led to scrutiny of the fashion industry, and its links to the practice.
The garment trade is vital for the developing countries of Asia; almost 80 percent of the foreign earnings Bangladesh generates, for instance, are from the industry. However, the volume demands from fashion brands have put pressure on manufacturers, which is often transferred to the workers, including children, who face harsh working conditions with long hours and low wages. Also, as fashion chains shift their supply sources to the cheapest means possible, competition among the producing countries rises, placing more pressure on conditions for workers. Bangladesh continues to be the largest and most important supplier for fashion brands, but it also has some of the harshest working conditions in Asia.
H&M, a popular Swedish brand known for “cheap and trendy” clothing, is the single biggest buyer of Bangladeshi garments, and imports around $1.5 billion of clothes from the country, according to reports by trade officials. The clothing brand has been under fire over working conditions at some of its suppliers in Asia, with allegations of child labor, sexual harassment, low wages, and long hours with hardly any time off. A German TV program has reported on H&M’s association with child labor in Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, with children as young as 12 years old working 14 hours a day. GAP has also faced numerous problems with association to child labor, starting in 1995 when teenage girls were found making clothes for GAP in an El Salvador factory well into the night. Another similar incident occurred in 2000 in Cambodia, with the most recent being in 2007, when a video surfaced of children around the age of 10 making clothes for GAP in India.
Awareness and criticism of the practice of big-name fashion brands using child labor has been surfacing since the 1990s, and each time it has been followed by protests, apologies, and promises that stricter requirements for supply chains will be enforced. Yet the issue continues to emerge, always with the same pattern. The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed as many as 1,129 workers, has done much to influence the way international community thinks of labor standards. As yet, however, it has not reversed the continued decline in the prices of clothing, and the pressure that places on conditions for the workers who make it.